Citizen complaints against Cleveland police officers fell by 40 percent after the city spent $2.4 million to buy 1,500 body cameras for every front-line officer.
The figures cover a nine-month period from January to September and back up findings from another study done one year ago by the University Of Cambridge Institute Of Criminology. It found that when officers wore body cameras, incidents in which police used force dropped by 50 percent, and citizen complaints against officers were reduced by an amazing 90 percent.
Both studies are a testament that police and the public are less likely to be unruly when they know they’re on candid camera. Citizens also are not as likely to file false complaints.
Like any tool, however, body cameras have limitations. Lawyers were quick to point that out during the annual Ohio Bar Association Law and Media conference in October. Among the points raised:
• Officers equipped with body cameras may shy away from disturbances which could be viewed as hassling the public, to the point their inaction could leave innocent people in jeopardy.
• There is a danger of the courts over-relying on what they “believe” a video is showing. This could come at the expense of other evidence produced by police.
• The public must be assured cameras are not being flipped on or off when it is helpful to police. At the same time, it should be understood there are moments when filming needs to be off limits, such as an officer talking with confidential informants.
• At some point, the video needs to become a public record (we would argue that should happen immediately).
• The rights of crime victims or others who are inadvertently captured on video need to be addressed. Blotting out their image on the tape is one possibility, although this can be a system primed for abuse if only police are allowed to view footage under the guise they are protecting the privacy of innocent victims.
The use of body cameras is one step in building trust between police and the citizenry. However, before a city, sheriff’s office or local village invests in body cameras, clear guidelines should be developed in regards to how and when the cameras are being used. Without such policies, a good thing could end up being a disaster waiting to happen.